Experimental Fieldwork

Find out about Professor Richard Phillips's novel approach to fieldwork, including the use of creative writing workshops to address personal subjects such as sex and relationships.


Sheffield Geography staff and students not only do fieldwork in our teaching and research – we are also leaders in new and experimental fieldwork methods. Books for student audiences, written by Sheffield geographers, include Richard Phillips’s Fieldwork for Human Geography and Dan Hammett’s Research and Fieldwork in Development. Cutting-edge fieldwork and creative methods are also central to research publications and projects. For an example of experimental fieldwork in practice, we now turn to ongoing research by Professor Richard Phillips.

An example of Richard’s experimental fieldwork comes from his recent project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, involving young British Muslims. The project investigated some aspects of social difference that many people find too delicate and private for direct questions, which might come across as rude and intrusive. Therefore, Richard and his co-researchers had to find more creative ways of doing their fieldwork. A novel method which they developed, involved creative writing and animation. In workshops, held at community venues in Yorkshire and at the Glasgow Women’s Library, participants tried creative writing and made short films. Some learned new skills, others found new friends, and most enjoyed the workshops, but they also generated data that were relevant to the research. If you would like to hear from Richard and the participants in this study, and learn why experimental research and fieldwork were appropriate, please watch our film: Meaningful Research through Creative Writing. The film also introduces some findings of the project, which challenge stereotypes about cultural and religious minorities such as Muslims in Britain, and illustrate the importance of listening to each other in a diverse society.

The experimental research methods pioneered in this project are explained in a new book: Creative Writing for Social Research. The findings, including short stories by young British Muslims, appear in another book, an anthology of fiction from our creative writing workshops: A Match Made in Heaven. You can learn more about this in another film: Women Making Choices

This research is not just interesting; it is making a difference. First, in terms of how others are doing research. Our creative writing methods have already been adopted in disciplines from health studies (of how people cope with illness) to education research (studies of how people learn), from the UK to Australia. Second, the short stories and films, produced in our work with young Muslims, are being adapted for use in secondary schools in England. These stories are helping schools to ensure that teaching on Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and on Changing Places is adapted to the diversity of modern human geography.

Amanda discusses field notebook with students
Third year BA Geography students on the Urban Exploration field class

Professor Phillips’s research contributes to Sheffield Geography’s focus on studies of social justice, difference and diversity. Students learn about these themes in research-led lecture and fieldwork classes. Examples include a third-year field class called Urban Exploration, in which students try experimental fieldwork methods such as sound recording and smell mapping.

Study with us

Join an international community of geographers and help tackle the biggest issues in our changing world.

A world-class university – a unique student experience

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.